From Student Affairs Professional to Student Affairs Scholar: Taking Charge of the Change You Want to See

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We’re excited to share this article with you because at Academic Impressions, we believe that the change you need to see at your institution is often within your own control, and that your professional development is key to building the skills and identifying the opportunities to lead change at your institution and in your field.

In this article by the authors of the book A guide to becoming a scholarly practitioner in student affairs, learn how positioning yourself as a scholar in student affairs can be critical to this process.

If you could give voice to those who were marginalized, if you could change the field of student affairs through your voice, if you could create better collaborations across campus with our academic colleagues, and if you could share your insights with parents, students, and other invested stakeholders so that they know what we contribute to student learning and development, then why would you not?

Student affairs practitioners need to engage in scholarship to give voice and to inform others about their impact on student lives. Scholarship addresses the concerns of stakeholders, and it is essential for professional identity development and career advancement.

Student Affairs Scholarship: Why Don’t We Do This Already?

In our book A Guide to Becoming a Scholarly Practitioner in Student Affairs (Hatfield and Wise, 2015), we noted several reasons why student affairs practitioners do not engage in scholarship (pp 6-8):

Not reading enough. If we are not reading research, we are probably not contributing to it. Carpenter (2001) writes, “Any student affairs professional not reading the literature, not becoming knowledgeable of research and theory, is not acting ethically. Students have a right to expect that student affairs professionals are knowledgeable of appropriate theories, current research, and proven best practices” (p. 311). More importantly, reading research provides practitioners with a solid foundation for developing and improving programs and services. It takes us beyond anecdotal knowing to knowing that has been examined, and it adds legitimacy and intention to our work.

Not expected of positions and not valued. Unlike tenure-track faculty, student affairs practitioners do not have the same pressure to publish results of their impact on student learning and development. Studies show that student affairs practitioners are given little incentive by supervisors for scholarship (Fey & Carpenter, 1996; Saunders & Cooper, 1999).

Second-class citizen syndrome. Student affairs professionals may feel inferior to their colleagues in academic departments not only in degree obtainment but also in their research skills, and thus are less likely to publicly share research through presentations or publications.

Inadequate academic preparation. Some graduate student affairs programs may not adequately prepare practitioners to write and publish: According to Jablonski, Mena, Manning, Carpenter, and Siko (2006), “Even students from some of our best programs are inadequately trained in research, evaluation, and assessment. Even when they are rudimentarily trained, they frequently lack a conception of the values of scholarship and their obligation to consume and contribute to research in the field” (p. 187).

Lack of motivation. If research and scholarship are not valued by supervisors (Fey & Carpenter, 1996; Saunders & Cooper, 1999) and staff are not encouraged to participate in such, it would not be surprising that there would be little motivation or incentive to engage (Schroeder & Pike, 2001).

We know the importance now of being a scholar practitioner, and we now understand better the reasons we may not engage in research and scholarship. Here, we share three strategies you can employ to advance your professional development as a scholar.

Scholarship: How Do We Do It?

Here are three strategies to help you overcome these obstacles to scholarship in student affairs and get started:


Presentations are a great way to get started on your way to becoming a scholar practitioner. If you’re thinking of sharing the good work you and your colleagues are doing, go online to search for organizations that would benefit from learning about what you have to say. Ideas for presentations topics can come from a variety of sources. For example, examine what you do in your programs and services and think about how others may benefit from knowing about what you do. What are your program goals and outcomes, and how does what you have learned from your assessment of these contribute to your field?

Have you solicited feedback? After you have created your presentation, solicit feedback from trusted colleagues. Encourage feedback that is constructive and will inform content as well as style. Learning how to receive feedback helps prepare you for the peer review process that most often accompanies presentation and paper submissions. Remember, feedback that is constructive changes us as writers.

Have you determined where to submit your presentation proposal?  There are 41 organizations that partnered to create the ninth edition of the handbook by The Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS) (2015), standards which can be applied in the development and evaluation of student affairs programs. Many of these organizations have regional and national conferences. There are many opportunities to share your work by exploring these organization’s websites.


“Writing is one of the primary sites where scholarly identity is formed and displayed,” noted Rose and McClafferty (2001, p. 30). In a survey of senior student affairs officers, Herdlein (2004) found they also desired improvements in the writing skills of their staff. The more student affairs professionals write, the more they may see themselves as scholar and as contributors to the academy both in practice and in knowledge production. Moreover, scholarship can help student affairs practitioners advance professionally.

Many avenues are available for publishing: book reviews, practitioner articles, research articles, a variety of online outlets, book chapters, and books themselves. Before deciding where you want to publish, think about your ideas and the audience that would resonate with them. Think about your comfort level in writing too, as these avenues vary in the length of article accepted. For example, a blog typically runs 300-500 words while an article in a peer-reviewed (referred) journal can run up to 4,000 words. Once you decide on the type of article you want to publish, review the publication guidelines for submission requirements.  Many publications have peer-review, a stringent review and approval process by experts in the same subject area. Reviewers will examine the paper to determine if the methodology, conventions, and style are sound. They will then make recommendations to the journal’s editor as to whether a manuscript should be accepted, accepted with revisions, or rejected.


We know firsthand the importance of making a place for support systems in our scholarly practice. We have several ideas that have worked for us and perhaps a few will resonate with you: Engage in collaboration. Join a support group. Find a mentor. Be your own inspiration. Collaborative relationships in writing, work when we can expand our expertise. For example, if you understand the content and delivery of services in your department but lack specific expertise in research methods, then find a partner with this latter skill set and write together.

Find a few colleagues and form a support group to write with rather than go at it alone. Writing groups offer a wealth of benefits—people who can give you ideas and feedback, people who can inspire you to stay you on track, and people who will just listen because they may not have finished that well-intentioned chapter either.  A writing group will be most productive if you follow a few tips: keep the group manageable in size (three or four people is ideal), determine how often and how long to meet; set goals and expectations for what needs to be accomplished by each meeting and hold each other accountable.

Finding a mentor can be invaluable. A mentor can serve as a role model for the profession, including the pursuit of scholarly endeavors. The mentor-mentee relationship can take many forms that you will negotiate. Do you need a coach? A trusted adviser? Decide how a mentor can support your professional growth.

How Do We Keep Doing It?

Creating a practice of scholarship may take some effort, but these efforts pay in dividends for one’s professional development. Here are several strategies to sustain you in busy times.


Writing daily is a habit. You may not feel you have enough time in a day to write. Or that you can’t write daily until you are inspired, and once inspired, you will surely be productive enough to produce pages of writing. We encourage you to inspire yourself a little every day. Write for 10 minutes and see how you feel. If you write even when you aren’t inspired, you create the habit of writing. So, just write and don’t worry about how good it is. In the revision phase you will have ample time to make it perfect enough. Once you are inspired then set goals for yourself too. What can you accomplish in 15-30 minutes per day? Quite a bit, we say. In addition to cleaning your bathroom or walking a mile or two, you can even work toward writing your dissertation (Bolker, 1998).


In discussions with senior student affairs leaders, we found some common threads amongst these leaders in their scholarly practices. They were daily readers. They were curious about the “whys” of their observations. They had a growth mindset and encouraged the same in their staff. They saw themselves as scholars and engaged in regular scholarly pursuits.


Leaders can be role models. They can encourage collaborations. They can build scholarship into the reward and recognition process. Scholarship can be built into the organizational structure, for example, by creating reading groups and professional development opportunities both internal and external to the university.

Unless student affairs practitioners, those who work most closely with students, take the time to present or publish, then changes to the field will not be informed by those most knowledgeable to improve practices, programs, and services. (Hatfield & Wise, 2015). You can choose to be a part of that change by pursuing your own scholarship. Go and get started!

Additional Reading

  • Bolker, J. (1998). Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day. New York, NY: Owl Books.
  • Carpenter, S. (2001). Student affairs scholarship (re?)considered: Toward a scholarship of practice. Journal of College Student Development, 42(4), 301-318.
  • Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (2015). CAS professional standards for higher education (9th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
  • Fey, C. J., & Carpenter, D. S. (1996). Mid-level student affairs administrators: Management skills and professional development needs. NASPA Journal, 33(3), 218-231.
  • Hatfield, L. J., & Wise, V. L. (2015). A guide to becoming a scholarly practitioner in student affairs. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Jablonski, M. A., Mena, S. B., Manning, K., Carpenter, S. & Siko, K. L. (2006). Scholarship in student affairs revisited: The summit on scholarship, March 2006. NASPA Journal, 43(4), 182-201.
  • Herdlein, III, R. J. (2004). Survey of chief student affairs officers regarding relevance of graduate preparation of new professionals. NASPA Journal, 42(1), 51-71.
  • Rose, M., & McClafferty, K. A. (2001). A call for the teaching of writing in graduate education. Educational Researcher, 30(27), 27-33. doi:10.3102/0013189X030002027
  • Saunders, S. A., & Cooper, D. L. (1999). The doctorate in student affairs: Essential skills and competencies for midmanagement. Journal of College Student Development, 40(2), 185-191.
  • Saunders, S. A., Register, M. D., Cooper, D. L., Bates, J. M., & Daddona, M. F. (2000). Who is writing research articles in student affairs journals? Practitioner involvement and collaboration. Journal of College Student Development, 41(6), 609-615.
  • Schroeder, C. C., & Pike, G. R. (2001). The scholarship of application in student affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 42(4), 342-355.